Denis Healey: Blair must quit if he is wrong about these weapons

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Despite all the Prime Minister says, I am simply not convinced that there was any serious evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, and I am disturbed by attempts to falsify evidence in order to show that there was. The UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, did not find any. He is an extremely honest and intelligent man, and I think it is worrying that the Americans will not let him back to continue his work. He believes that the Allies' intelligence on Iraq was shaky, and warns that it may turn out that the war was not justified.

The evidence seems to support this view. Doubts have been expressed over whether the trailers seized in Iraq are actually chemical and biological weapons laboratories as claimed. We must ask why, if Saddam had WMD, he did not use them when we attacked him? One of the British government's dossiers outlining the crimes of Saddam's regime was plagiarised from a paper by an American student of political science. The attempts to link Iraq with al-Qa'ida were simply implausible; the last thing Saddam would ever have done would be to help a terrorist he could not control.

One need only witness how the British and the Americans have twisted and turned in response to such accusations to see how weak their case was. The CIA is already reviewing the accuracy of claims about WMD, and is complaining that the Pentagon is pressing them to find evidence to bolster the case for war. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has stated that Saddam may have destroyed his WMD. John Reid, the Leader of the House of Commons, has blamed "rogue elements" in the intelligence services for undermining the Government's case for war. But in my opinion it is much more likely that the hyping of the evidence came from the Government, not the security services.

It is clear to me that there should be an independent inquiry, like the 1996 Scott inquiry over arms to Iraq or the Franks inquiry over the Falklands war. The Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee is investigating the matter, as is the Intelligence and Defence Committee, but I do not think an inquiry carried out by MPs, who are subject to ministerial pressure, is likely to be convincing.

The sooner we get the answers the better. I do not see any reason why it should take a very long time. The issues are few and very specific. All the people they have to interrogate are easily available in Washington and London. They should be able to make the conclusions public in a few weeks.

The American public does not worry about finding WMD as much as the British. And, of course, Americans know much less about foreign affairs. That is a very dangerous situation. However, I'm sure that the Bush administration will have to come to terms with reality. They will eventually be forced to rebuild relations with the rest of the world's powers. They have done that already so far as Russia is concerned, and they're trying to avoid worsening relations with Germany, critically important in a Europe soon to be enlarged. France is simply an easy target, and always has been for the Americans.

One certainty which arises from the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein is that there will be a great increase in Islamic fundamentalism. Jordan and Egypt explicitly made this warning before the war began. We might even see the fall of pro-Western governments in the Islamic world.

Most obviously at risk is Saudi Arabia, the base of Western interests in the Middle East. And the overthrow of the Pakistani government, a state which has nuclear weapons, would be absolutely disastrous. An Islamic fundamentalist state with nuclear arms would be extremely dangerous. And this terrible situation has been wholly brought about by the stupidity of Western governments.

And if weapons are found? It will help Blair no end, but it will be extremely difficult to explain why Saddam did not use them when he fought us. And why should Hans Blix and his inspectors be prevented from returning? I would not put it past the Americans to plant their own weapons of mass destruction there.They have already tried to sell the ridiculous story about Saddam acquiring nuclear material from Niger, a claim latter shown to be utterly fraudulent.

The future of the Prime Minister and this government will depend on how things develop from this point. It is very much in his hands. If Blair were to hold his hands up and say, "I'm sorry I made a mistake," he would be strengthened rather than weakened. But if he is found out to have been wrong about those weapons - or worse, that he knowingly made false statements - I believe he should be replaced as leader. I suspect many in the party would agree, if there is no evidence found that Iraq was capable of presenting an imminent threat in the run-up to war.

Of course, the main contender to replace Tony Blair is his Chancellor, Gordon Brown. And I do not think Brown would have made all these mistakes over Iraq. The difference between the two men is that Blair is too worried about his place in history, while I don't think Brown is at all.

Regardless of personalities, discontent and anger will continue to grow inside the Labour Party. The only scenario that could stop that, namely an unequivocal discovery of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, is looking less and less likely with each day that passes.

The writer is a former Defence Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer

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